Constitutional Matters: The Visionary, Thomas Jefferson
This is the third in a series of short essays focusing on our constitutional history and constitutional leaders, all of whom had a significant impact. This series will attempt to relate the unique features that defined their leadership with an eye toward elucidation of our constitutional system as well as a deeper understanding of our national history.
If Thomas Jefferson had been an airplane, he would have been named the Spirit of America. He articulated the vision that has contributed to the development path of the United States since its beginning. On the other hand, he was a fascinatingly complex person who leaves us, and no doubt those who knew him during lifetime, with questions. However, despite these questions, we celebrate his brilliance.
No American more personifies the Enlightenment than Jefferson. The 18th Century brought the challenges of science to religion, philosophers to kingly authority, and all the resulting social and political upheaval that would eventually accompany the movement. Jefferson fit solidly in the middle of this movement but proved to be more on the tempered side of Englishman John Locke than the more radical side of the Frenchmen Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. However, as with all things, Jefferson defied labels and always proved to be somewhat undefined.
Born to a wealthy planter in 1743, Jefferson grew up with the advantages of his station, attended college at William and Mary, and joined the Virginia bar in 1767. At this point, revolution was already brewing in the American colonies, and Jefferson would be a leading figure in the movement.
It might be easier to list the things in the early American republic that Jefferson did not influence than to describe all his contributions. From the Northwest Ordinances that specified how new states would join the union, how their land would be measured, and the restrictions on slavery, to the Virginia Declaration of Rights with its provision for religious freedom, to the justification for the United States, to the decimal system for money, to the two party system, to public education, to almost anything you can name, Jefferson had an influence. He also held a plethora of political positions.
Jefferson began his political career as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses beginning in 1769 and represented Virginia in the First Continental Congress of 1775, and eventually served as the major author of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 during his service with the Second Continental Congress. He then returned to Virginia’s first state legislature and eventually became governor of the Old Dominion in 1779-80 (one year terms). He joined the Continental Congress in 1783 and became their Minister to France from 1785-89. He corresponded heavily with James Madison during the Constitutional Convention and returned to serve as the first Secretary of State under George Washington from 1790-3.
|He began an intellectual rivalry with Alexander Hamilton in Washington’s cabinet and from that rivalry the two-party system of America, the Federalists and the Democratic-republican, emerged. He eventually became vice president, 1797-1801, under Federalist John Adams with whom he greatly disagreed (although former friends, the two would renew their friendship later and ironically die on the same day, July 4, 1826). As a result, he would initiate the 12thAmendment which provides for the president and vice president to run as a ticket, a move that firmly solidified the two party system. He won the presidential election in 1800 and before he left in 1809, he had nearly doubled the size of the U.S. with the Louisiana Purchase, sent Lewis and Clark to explore it, initiated war with the Barbary Pirates, and began a system of U.S. canals. When he returned to Virginia, he founded the University of Virginia to bring education to the public rather than just a wealthy few. Despite all this, some question his legacy.
Jefferson is a bit of a puzzling study. He championed states rights, even to the point of assisting James Madison in authoring the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions which encompassed the idea of states nullifying federal laws when the latter overstepped its enumerated powers (written in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts). However, he consummated the Louisiana Purchase which was certainly not listed as a power of the federal government. He wrote of the freedom of humanity, represented slaves seeking their freedom through courts, he worked to outlaw the slave trade and slavery in the Northwest Territories but maintained slaves all his life. In his personal life, he lost his wife at a relatively young age, and later maintained a long relationship with his slave Sally Heming with whom he may have had a child. He was an accomplished architect who designed his home Monticello, developed an encryption machine, owned thousands of acres, and struggled with debt all his life (it took 40 years after his death to finally settle his estate). It is certainly not easy to pigeonhole Jefferson. However, no matter how his nuances are analyzed, his contributions can hardly be overstated.
Without Jefferson’s dream of an Empire of Liberty stretching across North America, the America we know may never have developed. Without Jefferson, the ideal of human freedom would not have been the mission of America. Without Jefferson, we would not have the basic land surveying system we have in most of the U.S. Jefferson even contributed to the dinner table with the development of the Lazy Susan to pass food so that conversation would not be interrupted at the dining table. Remarkable and puzzling might be the best description for Jefferson, but it is hard to overestimate his contribution to the spirit of freedom that defines America.